Oversized and Undersized Goals

We have all felt the strain of trying “way too hard.” Perhaps we have bitten off more than we can handle. Perhaps we have simply endeavored at a brand new skill. Perhaps we are stubbornly trying to do it “our way,” ignoring the guidance of more skilled mentors and peers. 

Regardless of how we find ourselves there, we have all bashed our head into the wall of something that is simply way too hard for us

This is deeply uncomfortable, but also offers tremendous opportunity for growth. We never grow while comfortable. Whether cold, hungry or fatigued, frustrated, confused, discouraged, or envious, we require the push of discomfort to move forward.

Let’s explore the relationship between effort and progress, skill and technique, steady growth or rapid results.

I’ll posit an equation: New Skill = Effort + Current Skill Level/Technique

Essentially, effort is the gap between what you wish to be able to do and what your current skill and technique can accomplish easily. For now, let’s consider lump physical strength in with your skill and technique as the two typically growth in tandem. These are obviously separate facets of development but for the purpose of this article we will combine them. Our main focus is to examine how to choose the scope of new challenges and the mindset required at different phases of your goal.

When we select a challenge far outside of our abilities, our above equation tells us that we will need to expend considerable effort to fill the gap in our current shortcomings. An overly ambitious goal remains out of reach no matter the effort we pour into it. Goals within reach require little effort and success comes easily. Many flow state researchers agree that optimal flow conditions require a goal that lays just beyond our abilities; a goal that will push us to work and become better but does not feel impossible. We must strike a balance between discouragement and ease, between frustration and boredom.

I agree that these “Goldilocks” goals drive the deepest and most rapid growth. Practice in selecting our aims can be just as beneficial as the work to fulfill them. We develop an introspective view of ourselves when we must take honest stock of our abilities yet find the confidence to take on a new challenge. 

While optimally sized goals should define the bulk of our work and development, taking on challenges both too easy and too difficult can fastrack this growth. Undersized and oversized challenges only serve us when approached with honesty and humility. The right mindset in these situations fuels the work toward our primary goals.

Undersized Goals

In understanding the relationship between effort, technique (including strength), and growth, I think first to rock climbing. Not only does it fill my constant attention, but the challenges, work, and modes of success perfectly parallel other areas of life development. 

Rock climbing routes are rated by difficulty. While at times highly subjective, these ratings give a prospective climber an idea of how the route will compare to other climbs. Routes also very drastically by style; some are under-vertical with small holds requiring delicate, balanced movement while others are severely overhanging requiring gymnastics-like movement and upper body strength. Every climber will have natural strengths and weaknesses in the various styles.

In climbing, a route that your are working to complete (ie. your big goal) is called a project. If you only work on your project you can stagnate out of frustration. It may very well be within your reach with some work, but continually trying and failing on the same set of moves and sequences brings discouragement.

Occasionally taking on an undersized challenge can give you the necessary practice and confidence to move forward with your big goal. Climbing easier routes that require only a few attempts to complete gives you confidence in your abilities. There is no feeling like stepping up to your project with calm confidence.

Easier routes (especially those of similar style to your project) offer an opportunity to focus on moving efficiently. When operating under our physical limit we can practice smooth and balanced movement, using little unnecessary force or effort. Undersized goals allow us to hone in the fundamental skills that will help bring us toward our primary goal.

It is easy to become addicted to the good feels that accompany accomplishment. Growing attached to small successes can make you fearful to take on larger challenges where you cannot guarantee success. Undersized goals only contribute to your broader growth in a supporting role. Approach them as repetitions and practice toward greater objectives.

Oversized Goals

Challenges beyond our reach can discourage us. However, if we let go of our expectation to conquer them, they can actually fuel our primary (and far more realistic) goals.

I recently began attempting a climbing route several grades beyond what I have currently completed. I saw a few friends climb it and it seemed within reason to give it a run. I struggled and fell at first, but eventually I was able to work out all the moves and make it to the top. I am still far from success. I need to return to link up all the difficult sections without falling or resting in between.

I started this climb without the slightest expectation of success. Rather, I expected to flail and fall and never reach the top. With no attachment to my results, I was free to simply try my best at moves that I would have considered far beyond my abilities.

I came away from my flail-fest feeling victorious. I had exceeded my personal expectations while (literally) falling far short of “success.” I could see my primary goals with a much different perspective. After surprising myself on the harder route, my project fells far less daunting. Stretching toward a challenge far beyond my reach showed me just how far my reach actually is. 

Occasional work toward an oversized goal can teach you just where the limits of your abilities are. Like with undersized goals, let go of your expectations for success. Know that these extreme challenges are just that: extreme. Your work toward them isn’t necessarily meant to see their completion, only to give you an important perspective shift toward your primary goals.

Letting Go

A common thread runs through the necessary approach to both oversized and undersized goals. In each scenario, we must let go of our attachment to the results. In undersized goals, attachment to quick and easy successes makes us afraid to take on great challenges that inevitably bring some failure. In oversized goals, attachment to prospective success will bring only discouragement, for (at the moment) these lay far beyond our abilities.

In goals both too big and too small focus on practice and fun. Small victories feel great. Relish them for a moment then humbly return to the work. Extreme challenges allow you to tickle the next level, demystifying what might become realistic goals soon.

Most importantly, oversized and undersized goals allow us to practice letting go, to practice for practice’s sake, and to focus on the process rather than the results. The most valuable lesson from working above and below our range is to let go our expectation when returning to our primary goals.